A hot pink glow radiates from the wall; it’s the first thing you notice when walking up the steps into the Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk exhibit at 659 Wrightwood in Chicago (April 14-July 15, 2023). Art has the power to transport us to other worlds, other times, and other realities. Even more, it can challenge our assumptions, inspire our imaginations, and make us see things in a whole new way. This is precisely what the "Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk" exhibit achieves, as it takes visitors on a fascinating journey through the intersection of Chinese history and science fiction. Kongkee, the artist behind the exhibit, combines comics, animations, projections, and more, and draws on the rich history of the Warring States period of Chinese history to infuse his art with futuristic themes and imagery, creating a bold and striking visual experience.
The Warring States period, which lasted from the 5th to the 3rd century BCE, was a time of great turmoil and upheaval in China. It was characterized by fierce competition and conflict between various states, each vying for power and control. This historical context provides the perfect backdrop for Kongkee's work, as he explores themes of conflict, power, and human nature in a cyberpunk-inspired setting.
Ancient poet Qu Yuan is at the center of the exhibit. His life and tragic death during the Warring States period serve as a kind of jumping-off point for Kongkee’s question of what happens when an ancient soul is brought back to life in the body of a futuristic android. Kongkee pushes even further and asks, what if, despite forever interning his body at the bottom of the Miluo River, Qu Yuan's spirit was teleported to the future? Would his soul go on to live the life he may have had, or will his android self share the same fate?
To attempt to answer these questions, the exhibit features a wide range of art forms, from large-scale installations to paintings and digital media. Saturated screens show a human portrait from one angle and an android from another, the bodies transformation from human flesh to android skeleton. Penciled sketches and looping videos of photoshop show the early stages of Dragon’s Delusion, a collection of short films that involve even more android-human crossovers.
Another standout piece is the expansive three screen wall projection “River” that depicts a reddish-orange, blood colored river. Street signs and dilapidated, half sunken buildings float past, calling to mind a post-apocalyptic, dystopian society built on the ruins of the past. The projections are rendered in Kongkee’s bold and colorful style, with strong graphic shapes and dynamic compositions that draw the viewer in.
Kongkee’s work is as breathtaking as it is thought-provoking; it's not just the visual impact of his work that makes it so compelling. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of "Kongkee: Warring States Cyberpunk" is the sense of wonder and excitement that it inspires. By taking viewers on this journey through past and future, Kongkee invites audiences to see the world in a whole new way, to embrace the power of imagination, and to look towards the future with hope and optimism. The exhibit also invites visitors to think deeply about the intersection of past and future, and the role of technology in shaping our world. A world that, in particular, feels on the cusp of something similar since the introduction of AI into everyday spaces and experiences. By bringing together elements of ancient history and futuristic science fiction, Kongkee challenges us to consider how our past and present can inform our future, and leaves viewers, in the best way, with more questions than answers.